CLOSE
Original image
HBO

25 Golden Facts About Deadwood  

Original image
HBO

David Milch's Deadwood, which premiered on HBO in 2004, earned critical praise, launched careers, and won a devoted fan following over its three seasons. While admirers of the dark Western crime drama have long lamented its too-short run on television, it looks as if the series could be making a comeback. Milch, who has long wanted to tie up the show's loose ends with a feature, recently submitted a script to HBO to do just that—and those who have read it have been impressed.

W. Earl Brown, who played Dan Dority on the series, tweeted (in true Deadwood fashion) that, "The hour and half it took me to read was f*cking thrilling and f*cking heartbreaking. I was sitting on an airplane, cheering and crying as I took a journey that only David Milch could create. I've read the Deadwood film script. It's stunning."

Whether or not the feature finally comes to fruition, there's still reason to celebrate this stellar series with these behind-the-scenes details that will deepen your appreciation of all things Bullock and Swearengen.

1. DEADWOOD WAS SHOT ON A FAMOUS RANCH.

Much of the series was shot on the sets of Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita Valley, California. Established in 1915, this location has been the backdrop to a long legacy of Westerns. Television shows like Gunsmoke, The Cisco Kid, The Gene Autry Show, The Lone Ranger, and Have Gun—Will Travel lensed there, as did movies like High Noon, The Gunfighter, and Django Unchained.

2. IT WAS BASED ON THE REAL DEADWOOD, SOUTH DAKOTA.

H. R. Locke & Co. of Deadwood, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1870s, Deadwood, South Dakota was a place full of criminals and entrepreneurs. Series creator David Milch rigorously researched the real Deadwood by reading its newspapers, the diaries of its residents, and formal historical accounts like Black Hills expert Watson Parker's Deadwood: The Golden Years.

3. IT IS FILLED WITH REAL CHARACTERS.

Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane might have been Deadwood's most famous residents, but Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, Sol Star, E.B. Farnum, A.W. Merrick, Charlie Utter, and George Hearst were all real people with noted moments in history, too. However, characters like Trixie, Whitney Ellsworth, and Alma Garret were largely fictional, based more on archetypes of people who would've had a place in Deadwood.

4. THE REAL SETH BULLOCK WAS CALLED A "BAD MAN WITH A GUN."

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As in the show, Seth Bullock came to Deadwood with his friend Sol Star to open a hardware store. He invested in the community, headed health care boards, and became the town's first sheriff. That last vocation earned him the aforementioned reputation, which endeared him to Theodore Roosevelt, whom Bullock later successfully helped campaign for the presidency of the United States. The Chicago Tribune later ran a delightful description of Bullock: "Bullock attracted general attention around the White House today. He has a fierce looking melodrama-villain's mustache and wears a sombrero."

5. THE REAL AL SWEARENGEN WAS NO ROMANTIC ANTI-HERO.

In Deadwood, Swearengen is a pimp, crook, and murderer, but he is also the protector of the "crippled" Jewel and grimly civic-minded. The real Swearengen was much less admirable. He was a sex trafficker, tricking women into coming to Deadwood to work in his various business ventures—like a theater—but then forcing them into prostitution. His wife publicly accused him of domestic abuse. Eventually, he was run out of Deadwood and died of a massive head wound that was either caused by a fall from a failed leap onto a freight train or a willful act of murder.

6. DAVID MILCH DIDN'T WANT IAN MCSHANE TO AUDITION FOR SWEARENGEN.

Getty Images

Milch was convinced Ian McShane would be miscast as Swearengen. In Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills, he recalls, "Physically, Ian was absolutely wrong for the part. I didn't even want to read him. I had imagined Swearengen as a physically imposing specimen. But when Ian came in, he neutralized all of that, because he had Swearengen's essence, which was fierce matter-of-factness. He was who he was, unadulterated."

7. THE REAL GEORGE HEARST WAS A WORKING CLASS HERO.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

George Hearst was a self-made man who had a real gift for mining gold. The series painted him as a robber baron whose gold lust threatened Deadwood's existence. But there was much more to Hearst. He was raised on his parents' farm in Franklin County, Missouri, but left their homestead to join the Gold Rush in 1850. He made his first million in the Comstock Lode in Nevada, and after his dealings in Deadwood, he went on to become a senator.

Described as a "plain old Missourian, of small education and no polish of manners" by Cosmopolitan in 1888, Hearst purchased The San Francisco Daily Examiner in 1880, and a new family business was born seven years later when he handed the reins to his only son, William Randolph Hearst.

8. CALAMITY JANE REALLY DID CARE FOR THE SICK.

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In season one, smallpox hits Deadwood and Doc and Jane see to the afflicted. This generous action has been historically documented, along with Jane's trademark rough-and-tumble appearance. In Estelle Bennett's Old Deadwood Days, she paints a picture of Calamity Jane (a.k.a. Martha Canary):

She was a plain woman, looking older than she really was. She wore a dark cloth coat that never had been good, a cheap little hat, a faded frayed skirt and arctic overshoes … She came unscathed through the long smallpox siege and most of her patients lived. Dr. Babcock believed that without her care not one of them would have pulled through.

9. CALAMITY JANE AND WILD BILL WEREN'T REALLY THAT CLOSE.

It's suspected that their connection has been conflated over the years as a part of the blossoming tall tales of the Old West. The pair did come to Deadwood together, but hadn't known each other long before that. However, in her memoir, Jane did describe him as a friend. And the two, who died nearly 30 years apart, were buried beside each other in Deadwood's Mount Moriah Cemetery.

10. GENERAL SAMUEL FIELDS WAS A DEADWOOD CELEBRITY.

As he did on the series, Fields proudly called himself "The N****r General." He was a notable presence in the camp not only for his claims of being a Union Army general, but also for his flamboyant personality. This made him a recurring figure in the local newspapers like the Black Hills Pioneer, where he was described as "irrepressible, duplicatory, candescent," "the 'slycoon' senegambian," and "The Shakespearian Darkey." He was also an outspoken activist for the African-American community of Deadwood.

11. ST. PAUL INSPIRED REVEREND SMITH'S EPILEPSY PLOT LINE.

It was the tragic end of Deadwood preacher Reverend Henry Weston Smith that earned the notice of Milch. Though he was fond of saying The Bible was his protection, Smith was murdered making his way from Deadwood to a neighboring town to preach. The sermon found with his remains was "Upon Whose Life We Shall Base Ours, Upon Whom Better Than the Great Sinner Paul."

As Milch had suspected, St. Paul might have been a sufferer of temporal-lobe epilepsy. He decided to blend this element into Smith's Deadwood counterpart, leading to a different demise (in this case: mercy killing at the hands of Swearengen).

12. IF THE SERIES HADN'T BEEN CANCELED, THE GEM WOULD HAVE BURNED.

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Assuming Milch continued to follow the path the real Swearengen blazed, then his beloved saloon would be burned down—likely by one of the whoremonger's many enemies. But you can't keep Al down. In real life, Swearengen rebuilt it bigger and better than before, and it stood for another 20 years … until someone burned it down again.

13. THE ORIGIN OF TRIXIE'S NAME CAME FROM AN OLD CRIME REPORT.

In the first episode, we meet Trixie after she shoots a john in self-defense. This is a nod to the inspiration for her name. In John S. McClintock's memoir, Pioneer Days Of The Black Hills, he recounts, "I beheld a man lying on the floor with a bullet hole clear through his head back of his eyes. The woman 'Tricksie' grabbed a pistol while he was beating her and turned the tables on him."

In another Deadwood nod to true life, Doc Cochran responds to the corpse just as the doctor who arrived on the scene did. He "ran a probe through his head" to inspect the damage to the brain.

14. PAULA MALCOMSON MAY HAVE SAVED TRIXIE'S LIFE.

Getty Images

Over the seasons, Trixie the whore became an indelible part of Deadwood and the makeup of its titular town. But early on, the actress who played her feared her stint on the series would be short-lived. According to Malcomson, this all changed with "Reconnoitering the Rim," in which Trixie shaves the calluses off of Al's feet with a straight razor.

The scene was originally set with the two in bed, but Malcomson suggested the foot shaving business—something her father used to do for her grandfather—would give the pair's relationship a greater sense of depth and intimacy. She improvised the line, "Shall I do the other foot?" And McShane replied, "Please." She recalls, "The minute he said, 'Please,' I knew it was a new place for us." And Trixie was preserved.

15. SOL AND TRIXIE WOULD NEVER HAVE MARRIED.

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Though Sol Star became a celebrated and respected leader in the Deadwood community—first as a businessman then as its mayor—he never did get married, even after traveling East in search of a bride. All the same, it seems he was too well liked to ever be lonely.

In 1901's The Great Northwest and Its Men of Progress, he was described thusly:

Some men have a genius for popularity. With no effort on their part they become a sort of social or political center from which there seems to radiate an aroma of good fellowship, permeating the entire community. Frank and generous; genial in disposition; ever ready with a helping hand for a fellow in distress; jovial and social, yet, in serious matters keen and penetrating; sound in judgment; full of resources in emergency; energy unbounded, and a public spirit ready for war in the interests of his town, country, or state. These are some of the characteristics of a naturally popular man.

16. MILCH WAS DETERMINED TO GET GARRET DILLAHUNT ON DEADWOOD.

Getty Images

Maybe you noticed Dillahunt played both Wild Bill's crop-eared killer James McCall as well as the kinky and sadistic geologist Francis Wolcott. But his road to Deadwood was paved with false starts. Dillahunt initially auditioned for the role of Seth Bullock, then Doc Cochran, before being cast as McCall. After the rogue fled Deadwood for good in season one, Milch decided to bring Dillahunt back in season two. First Milch considered him for the role of Hearst, but ultimately chose him to play Wolcott, minus the prosthetics that marred his appearance in season one.

17. BEFORE DEADWOOD, MILCH PITCHED A SERIES ABOUT NERO'S ROME.

Unbeknownst to Milch, HBO had already green-lit Rome. Milch believed his fascination with how society can form from chaos could be explored in another historical setting, so he set his sights on the Black Hills of the Old West.

18. THE UNIFIER OF DEADWOOD (AND AMERICA) IS GOLD.

Getty Images

How do you transform chaos into society? According to Milch, mankind does so by rallying around a "totem of the leader." For Deadwood, that totem is gold. Those who have it rule those who want it. "Agreeing on this single symbol of value has allowed us to organize our individual energies on a wider scale," he has explained. As the place where the last of the great gold strikes occurred, Deadwood seemed the perfect place to show how gold and our accepted value of it could forge a civilization.

19. THOUGH THE CURSE WORDS WERE ANACHRONISTIC, CURSING WAS NOT.

Milch was dedicated to getting the tone of the Black Hills right. It was a dangerous and gruff place where men toiled, fought, and cursed. But the curse words of the 1870s would seem downright laughable today, even with the glowering Ian McShane delivering them. So "tarnation" and "goldarn" were swapped out for contemporary cursing's heavy hitters, even though the f-word didn't come into popularity until the 1920s.

20. A LOT OF F-BOMBS WERE DROPPED—BUT NOT AS MANY PER MINUTE AS THE WOLF OF WALL STREET HAD.

Paramount Pictures

Along with being praised for being an impeccably written show with outstanding performances, Deadwood earned attention for its aggressive use of the f-word. According to one dedicated viewer, the entire series clocked in with 2980 uses of the word. While that beats out Martin Scorsese's curse-laden white-collar crime drama's 569 uses, The Wolf of Wall Street wins when you break it down by uses-per-minute, boasting 3.16 to Deadwood's 1.56.

21. TIMOTHY OLYPHANT'S MOM IS NOT A FAN.

When her son was first cast as Deadwood's reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock, Mrs. Olyphant was thrilled her boy would be in a Western. Then she saw the first episode and was turned off by Milch's approach with its violence and coarse language. "I told all the ladies at church you were finally gonna be in something they could watch," she told Olyphant, "and now I've got to call them all back."

22. W. EARL BROWN FOUND HIS INSPIRATION FOR DAN DORITY CLOSE TO HOME.

Deadwood's Dan Dority is Swearengen's right hand man in many respects. The same was true in real life, where both Dority and Johnny Burns worked as general manager and floor manager of Swearengen's saloon. But in his portrayal of Dan, Brown found inspiration in his uncle. "He doesn't like to hear it," Brown confessed, "but I tell him, 'I get up there and I pretend I'm you.'" As a tough Kentuckian with a past full of fights, his uncle proved a great starting point for the character. From there, Brown considers Dan "an animal walking upright" until he met Swearengen, who gave him a path and a home in Deadwood.

23. A BELLA UNION BABE SINKS INTO THE TUB IN THE OPENING CREDITS.

Zero Alpha, YouTube

Though we never saw her face, Badass Digest recently uncovered the identity of this beautiful bather. Bethalyn Staples was one of 20 actresses cast as background extras to play the prostitutes of the Gem and The Bella Union. Staples was selected for Cy's Bella Union. But after production wrapped on season one, she was called back for some second unit shoots for the opening credits.

"I had no idea that I was going to be getting into a bathtub until just before we set up the shot," she said. "It was as no frills as it gets. They literally set a garden hose out in the sun to get warm so that the water wouldn't be cold when I got into the tub in a barn. We shot the scene in a hurry because we were losing the natural light that was shining through the window. My directions were probably the easiest I've ever received. Simply, sink into the tub as slowly as you can while still making it look natural. A few takes and that was it. When the series debuted, I was astonished by how gorgeous it looked."

24. MILCH REJECTED HBO'S OFFER FOR A FOURTH SEASON.

Deadwood fans reeled when news of the show's cancelation came just ahead of its season three premiere in the spring of 2006. Common speculation has laid the blame at the feet of Milch's then-greenlit John From Cincinnati; however, Milch himself admitted HBO offered a six-episode order for season four. But he turned it down, saying, "For my part, I did not want to accept a short order. We couldn’t have done the work the way we wanted. I didn’t want to limp home. My old man used to say, ‘Never go anyplace where you’re only tolerated.’”

25. DEADWOOD MAY NOT BE TRULY DEAD.

In the more than 10 years since its finale aired, there have been various rumors of movie specials that would tie up the loose threads left behind by season three. But hope for a long-awaited and craved finale dwindled to dust as time passed, especially in 2009, when McShane told The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, "No hope. That's dead." Milch confirmed this sad news himself in 2012, admitting, "We got really close about a year ago. Never say never, but it doesn’t look that way."

But earlier this year, reports began to surface that Milch was working on a script for a Deadwood movie. In April, a number of outlets began reporting that Milch had finished the script and turned it into HBO. McShane, too, confirmed the news, telling TVLine that a “two-hour movie script has been delivered to HBO. If they don’t deliver [a finished product], blame them.”

Original image
Image Entertainment
arrow
entertainment
12 Sharp Facts About Hellraiser
Original image
Image Entertainment

In 1987, the New World Pictures released Hellraiser, a horror film about a family who opens a puzzle box and invites hell in their lives in the form of pleasure-pain creatures known as Cenobites, who are lead by Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley). Unlike many other horror films at the time, Hellraiser wasn’t a slasher film, and Pinhead wasn’t a boogeyman.

British novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Clive Barker wanted to direct a feature film, so he adapted his 1986 horror novella, The Hellbound Heart, into Hellraiser. Despite the graphic nature of the film, it’s really a love story between Julia Cotton and her demented—and skinless—lover Frank  ... whose relationship just so happens to revolve around sadistic torture.

Hellraiser was produced for around a $1 million and grossed $14 million, making it lucrative enough to spawn nine sequels, including this year’s Hellraiser: Judgment. (Bradley hasn’t starred in a Hellraiser film since 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations, and Barker didn’t direct or write any of the sequels, most of which were direct-to-DVD releases.) As we near the 30th anniversary of its release, let's take a look back at this horror classic.

1. THE ORIGINS OF PINHEAD CAME FROM A 1973 PLAY.

Before Doug Bradley uttered the catchphrase “We’ll tear your soul apart,” Clive Barker directed him in a 1973 play called Hunters in the Snow, in which Bradley played the Dutchman, a torturer who would become the basis for Pinhead.

“The character I played in Hunters, the Dutchman, I can see echoes of later... Pinhead in Hellraiser," Bradley said. "This strange, strange character whose head was kind of empty but who conveyed all kinds of things.”

Barker’s mid-1980s short story “The Forbidden”—which was adapted into Candyman—from his "Books of Blood" series, featured the first incarnation of Pinhead’s nails. “One image I remember very strongly from 'The Forbidden' was that Clive had built what he called his nail-board, which was basically a block of wood which he’d squared off and then he’d banged six-inch nails in at the intersections of the squares,” Bradley said. “Of course, when I saw the first illustrations for [Pinhead], it rang a bell with me that here was Clive putting the ideas that he’d been playing around with the nail-board in 'The Forbidden,' now 10, 15 years later. He’d now put the image all over a human being’s face.”

2. CLIVE BARKER CAST “REAL ACTORS.”

Unlike many other horror movies of the time, which were more concerned with gore than great acting, Barker insisted that they look for real talent in the casting. “I’m not just taking the 12 most beautiful youths in California and murdering them,” Barker told The Washington Post in 1987. “I’ve got real actors, real performers—and then I’m murdering them.” The “real” refers to British theater actors like Bradley, Clare Higgins, and Andrew Robinson.

3. PINHEAD WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE ON THE POSTER.

New World Pictures

Bradley said the filmmakers wanted skinned Frank to be on the poster, but the studio said no to the grotesque imagery, so Pinhead was used on the poster instead. “Maybe that came from Clive, because what we get in that image of Pinhead with the box is the heart of the Hellraiser mythology,” Bradley said. “If you put The Engineer or the skinned man on the poster, it’s an amazing image but it’s just an image, and it could come from any movie.” Bradley thought using Pinhead’s face made more sense. “The big success of Pinhead is because the image is so original, so startling. It is just an incredible image to look at, and that made a big difference in terms of the public's perception of the movie.”

4. NO ONE KNEW THAT DOUG BRADLEY WAS PINHEAD.

Bradley’s Pinhead mug was everywhere—on the cover of magazines and on the movie’s poster—but no one mentioned his name. “It was great to be so heavily featured, but there was no way to prove to anyone that it was actually me,” Bradley said. “Those who were following Hellraiser at the time were wondering where the guy with the pins was! Well I can tell you where I was—I was sitting at home in England, watching it all happen from the sidelines.”

5. THE CENOBITES' DESIGN WAS INSPIRED BY S&M CLUBS.

In the box set’s liner notes, Barker wrote that the Cenobites's “design was influenced amongst other things by punk, by Catholicism, and by the visits I would take to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam.” Costume designer Jane Wildgoose created the costumes, based on Barker’s instruction of “repulsive glamour.”

“The other notes that I made about what he wanted was that they should be ‘magnificent super-butchers,’” Wildgoose said.

As for Pinhead, Barker said he “had seen a book containing photographs of African fetishes: sculptures of human heads crudely carved from wood and then pierced with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of nails and spikes. They were images of rage, the text instructed.”

6. IT'S REALLY A LOVE STORY.

Image Entertainment

Julia is forced to bring men back to her house and murder them for Frank so that he can replenish his flesh. Barker looked at Hellraiser as more of a love story, with Julia committing these heinous acts in the name of love, not just to be brutal for no reason.

“She’s not committing murder in the way that Jason in the Friday the 13th films commits murder—just for the sake of blood-letting —she’s doing it for love,” Barker told Samhain. “So there is a sympathetic quality about her, enhanced hugely in my estimation by the fact that Clare Higgins does it so well.”

7. BARKER’S GRANDFATHER INSPIRED THE PUZZLE BOX.

When a person twists the box, known as the Lament Configuration, it summons the Cenobites from the gates of hell into the individual's world. “I wanted to have access to hell in the book and in the first movie, explored by something rather different than drawing a circle on the floor with magical symbols around it,” Barker told WIRED. “That seemed rather stale and rather old.”

Barker explained his grandfather was a cook on ship and brought back a puzzle box from the Far East. “So when I went back to the problem of how to open the doors of hell, the idea of [using] a puzzle box seemed interesting to me. You know, the image of a cube is everywhere in world culture, whether it’s the Rubik’s Cube or the idea of the [Tesseract] in The Avengers movies. There’s a lot of places where the image of a cube as a thing of power is pertinent. I don’t know why that is, I don’t have any mythic explanation for it, but it seems to work for people.”

8. ROGER EBERT WASN'T A FAN OF THE FILM.

Roger Ebert gave Hellraiser just a half star when he reviewed it in 1987. “Who goes to see movies like this? This is a movie without wit, style, or reason,” he wrote, adding that, “I have seen the future of implausible plotting, and his name is Clive Barker.”

9. SOMEONE HAD THE JOB OF MAGGOT AND COCKROACH WRANGLER.

In England, there was a law in which cockroaches of both sexes weren’t allowed on set, because they could have mated and caused an infestation. So Barker had to hire someone to oversee the situation. “The wrangler, this is the honest truth, had to sex the roaches,” Barker told an audience at a Hellraiser screening. “They were all male. And we had a fridge. They move very fast, so the only way to slow them down was to chill them. We chilled the maggots and the roaches. We'd open it up and it was all reassuring. It was fun.”

10. BARKER PREFERS "HELL PRIEST" TO "PINHEAD."

In The Hellbound Heart, the Cenobite with pins sticking out of his head is called The Hell Priest. One of the special effects guys who worked on the movie gave the character his nickname. “I thought it was a rather undignified thing to call the monster, but once it stuck, it stuck,” Barker told Grantland.

In 2015, Barker published a sequel to The Hellbound Heart, The Scarlet Gospels, which features Pinhead getting annoyed when people call him that—as well as Pinhead’s demise. “He will not be coming back, by the way," Barker said. "That I promise you."

11. A HELLRAISER VS. HALLOWEEN MOVIE ALMOST HAPPENED.

In an interview with Game Radar, Bradley said the success of Freddy vs. Jason led Hellraiser distributor Dimension Films to flirt with a Hellraiser vs. Halloween film. “I was actually getting excited by the prospect of this because Clive said he would write it and John Carpenter said he would direct it,” Bradley said. “I actually spoke to Clive about it a couple of times and he was interested in finding the places where the Halloween and Hellraiser worlds intermeshed.” But Moustapha Akkad, who owned the rights to Halloween, extinguished the idea.

12. THE BRITISH BOARD OF FILM CLASSIFICATION HAD TO CHECK THAT NO RATS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THE MOVIE.

While the MPAA requested that a spanking scene be cut for its American release, England's BBFC agreed to release the movie as it was, if they were assured that the rats used in the film weren’t hurt. “I had to bring three remote-control rats into the censor’s office and make them wriggle about on the floor,” producer Christopher Figg told The Telegraph. “They wanted to be sure we hadn’t been cruel to them.”

Original image
Mark Dadswell/Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
When Ric Flair Traveled to North Korea for the Biggest Wrestling Show of All Time
Original image
Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

Whether he was in a dimly lit convention center in front of a few dozen people or headlining packed arenas around the globe, the thrill of a hot crowd was more than enough motivation to keep “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair in the ring decade after decade.

Decked out in his signature fluttering robes, Flair became the face of '80s pro wrestling through his athletic prowess, showmanship, and the machismo-soaked poetry he spewed at the microphone. So when the opportunity arose for him to perform against the most popular wrestler in Japan’s history in front of more than 150,000 fans, Flair couldn’t resist.

There was just one catch: The match would take place in North Korea, in front of a sea of people who didn’t know who Ric Flair was, much less what American professional wrestling was all about. It was the first time an American wrestling company would visit the "Hermit Kingdom," and what followed was a rare glimpse into a notoriously reclusive regime for a star-studded event that has been lost to time.

The show, which took place on April 28 and 29, 1995, was dubbed the International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace by the North Korean government. For a country that is usually intent on keeping outsiders away, inviting 300,000-plus people to cram into Pyongyang's massive May Day Stadium over the course of the two-day event seemed to be an about-face for the notoriously secretive regime.

"American tourists are almost never granted visas," wrote The New York Times's Sheila Melvin in 1996. "Yet less than a year after [Kim Il-sung's] death, North Korea was allowing outsiders to attend an International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Perhaps it was an effort to showcase a North Korea ruled by Kim Jong Il."

The key to uniting communist North Korea with American grapplers was the legendary Japanese wrestler—and embattled politician—Antonio Inoki. With his political career in limbo, Inoki saw participation in this event as a prime opportunity for a diplomatic win in Japan due to his positive relationship with the North Korean government. He was, after all, a protégé of the iconic wrestler Rikidōzan, who had become something of a propaganda symbol in North Korea following his death in 1963.

To make the show the global spectacle that the North Korean government wanted it to be, Inoki, who ran New Japan Pro Wrestling, set out to gather up some of the marquee names in American wrestling. He got in touch with Eric Bischoff, president of America's World Championship Wrestling (WCW). The two had a working relationship, and Inoki wanted Bischoff to bring some of his best talent to North Korea to perform; Bischoff happily agreed. He even got Bischoff to convince Muhammad Ali, a one-time opponent of Inoki's, to join them in greeting the crowd.

Antonio Inoki

By 1995, Bischoff’s WCW was playing a never-ending game of catch-up against Vince McMahon’s WWE (formerly WWF), so an opportunity to see his organization showcased at such a large event—and in such a hostile country—had the potential to be a defining moment for the company. While WWE dominated the U.S. wrestling scene by teaming up with MTV in the '80s, a show in North Korea could potentially get WCW worldwide attention.

The key to the show was Inoki wrestling in the main event against an American star. Originally, he approached Bischoff about getting Hulk Hogan, the biggest name in wrestling at the time. “So I asked Hulk, and I might as well have asked him to row a boat to Pluto," Bischoff told Sports Illustrated. "It was not gonna happen.”

With Hogan out, Bischoff approached Flair. Viewing a match against the legendary Inoki as another coup in an already stellar career, Flair readily agreed. The trip promised two things he lived for: pro wrestling and the type of adventure he could talk about—and embellish upon—for years to come.

“I just thought, number one, it’d be cool to travel with Muhammad Ali," Flair told USA Today in 2014. "Number two, it was a challenge, and I just thought it would be an experience to remember later in life.”

Flair wasn’t the only performer headed to North Korea; he was joined by other ‘90s wrestling mainstays, including Road Warrior Hawk, the Steiner Brothers, Chris Benoit (under the guise of Wild Pegasus), Scott Norton, and 2 Cold Scorpio.

Paul Kane/Getty Images

The trip got off to an ominous start. When WCW consultant Sonny Onoo informed the Japanese embassy of the trip, he was told, “You understand we cannot guarantee your safety.” The warning fell on deaf ears, and a rickety military transport plane soon brought the group from Japan to the heart of North Korea’s communist government.

Upon landing, “almost immediately, they separated us into groups of two and assigned each of us a handler, or 'minder' as they called it,” Bischoff recalled. Everyone was stripped of their passports and subjected to a carefully manicured tour of the country, including paying their respects to the late Kim Il-sung, North Korea's Supreme Leader until his death in 1994.

After being indoctrinated with a speech on their “Great Leader,” the government officials gave Bischoff and his fellow wrestlers flowers to leave in front of a statue of Kim Il-sung.

“They buy it for you and then charge you," Orville Schell, who reported on the event for the Asia Society, told Sports Illustrated. "You have to put it in front of the statue and then they take videos of you. And then they take the flowers back and sell them to the next guy.”

Scott Steiner
Scott Barbour/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

When it came time for the actual event to start, even the wrestlers—some of whom had been doing this for decades—were at a loss.

“The first time I got on the ropes and looked out there, I looked to the very top of the stadium,” wrestler Scott Steiner told Sports Illustrated. “They were like toothpicks, that’s how small they were. I was like, 'Wow, I can barely see them, how are they seeing me?' It was mind-blowing. But it was a fleeting moment. After that, I locked into the match.”

Despite the size of the crowd (which was rumored to be 150,000 on the first day and 190,000 on day two, though reports vary), the audience remained almost completely silent throughout the event—a far cry from the nonstop chants and cheers the American wrestlers were used to. But there was good reason for that: They likely had no idea what they were even watching.

“I think initially they expected it to be more like amateur wrestling,” Flair said. “[They] would ask me how [these wrestlers] could do this to somebody, you know, a wrestling move. I would say ‘I don’t know, they couldn’t do it to me.’ They probably thought they were getting duped a little bit.”

Even Muhammad Ali, who was “essentially a political prop” for the event, got a positive, albeit unremarkable, reaction from the people when he waved from his seat, according to CNN’s Mike Chinoy, a reporter brought over to cover the show.

Of course, when you want a reaction, there are few in the history of the wrestling industry better than the show’s headliners. Flair/Inoki main-evented the second night, with Inoki getting the win over Flair in about 15 minutes. More impressive than a choreographed melee between two legends was the fact that they had the audience in the palms of their hands. The two had put butts in arena seats all over the globe for decades, and even in an unfamiliar communist country, they hit their marks.

“Those two guys go out there and took that crowd from nothing to pandemonium. It was just amazing,” wrestler Scott Norton, who was the main event during the first night, said.

As with everything on the show, there were motives outside of just a fantastic match. One specific photo from the match—of a battered Flair being slammed around by an enraged Inoki—became part of a deluge of North Korean propaganda leaflets that were dropped over Seoul in late 1995.

After the final bell rang, the fight wasn’t over—at least not for the cadre of weary American wrestlers looking to get back home. Before they were able to return to Japan, then make their way back to the U.S., the North Korean government made one very unsettling request of Flair: They wanted him to read a statement basically saying that after visiting North Korea, he understood that the country could dominate the United States.

Flair refused to recite their requested language, but agreed to make a more diplomatic statement, praising this “beautiful and peaceful country” and saying, “His Excellency, Kim Il-sung, will always be with us.”

Even though it broke the all-time attendance record for a wrestling event, there wasn’t much to celebrate: In the United States, the event hadn't garnered much curiosity, and there were only scattered news reports covering its aftermath. To the wrestlers, it was just another show. Later on that year, WCW released part of the event as a U.S. pay-per-view special titled Collision in Korea; the event drew 30,000 buys—a paltry sum in comparison to the company’s other shows. What should have been a political moment draped in neon spandex soon faded into obscurity.

In 2001, McMahon’s WWE bought WCW and its tape library, yet the company rarely references the event, nor has it ever released Collision in Korea on its expansive WWE Network, which features nearly every other WCW show. There are theories about why the event seemed to disappear: WWE likes to maintain the claim that the company’s WrestleMania III, which drew (a disputed) 93,173 fans to Michigan's Pontiac Silverdome in 1987, holds one of the highest attendances for a wrestling show. Having a rival's event in North Korea basically double that number in just a single day might hurt the prestige of their own accomplishment.

According to wrestling historian Dave Meltzer, “WWE, they want to claim these records, so this kind of hurts that narrative." Bischoff was more blunt, saying the North Korea show is simply “an inconvenient fact for the branding and the positioning that the WWE is so great at.”

Despite feeling like hostages in a foreign country and wrestling to near-silence in front of a confused audience, there’s no denying the significance of the event—even if the world has seemingly forgotten all about it.

“Were they paying customers? I don’t think so,” Bischoff said. “Maybe. But the fact is, over the course of two nights, 350,000 people came to a stadium and watched professional wrestling with some of the biggest stars of the time. I think that’s a phenomenal achievement.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios